Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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A Duly Impressive Grease Still Slips

The first time I saw Grease, the "new '50s rock 'n roll musical," the little Off-Broadway theater where it opened last spring was sold out. I was duly impressed, and noted that its success as showbiz was deserved, but basically Grease made me angry. I thought it was condescending, to both the music and the period. When it moved to the Broadhurst Theater on West 44 Street and began to sell out there too, I decided its popularity had more to do with Broadway's desperate hunger for novelty than with its vitality as musical theater--in the country of the blind and so forth. Yet when I went to the Broadhurst to refresh my memory, I found myself looking forward to seeing Grease again. I guess I'm as susceptible to high-spirited nostalgia as the next over-30.

Well, not quite, but I did have fun. Grease is cleverly conceived and enthusiastically executed. The authors, Warren Casey and Jim Jacobs, know their oldies well enough to appropriate phrases and chord changes and snatches of melody from all the best worst places--early doo-wah and Philadelphia schlock, stroll and hand jive, "Louie Louie" and "G.T.O." The plot is serviceable, and the character development much more than that--in a few hours, 12 virtually flawless teenagers turn into recognizable and even moving caricatures, if not fully three-dimensional characters. And the balance between realism and professionalism that is apparently essential to musical comedy is comparatively well handled.

But I suspect that a more subtle elan underlies all that competence. Quite simply, Grease has to issue from a process of communal self-discovery. In any theatrical production, the cast--as individuals and as a group--makes an imaginative leap into the reality of the play. How often, though, must it leap at the same time into its own shared past? That is what a "new '50s rock 'n roll musical" requires. No two mortals, however diligent, could create a turn-of-the-decade Rydell High all by themselves. Make a gaffe in a costume drama, and only a few pedants will notice, but foul up Rydell High and everyone who went there--which means almost everyone born between 1939 and 1948 who is liable to enter a theater, to perform or watch--gives you the psychic finger. I'm sure the authors provided a good many of the details--the argot, the fashion items, the mores and folkways--that are the stuff of the production, but I'm equally sure that its essential vitality consists in hundreds of tiny moments of personal/cultural self-perception by the cast. Who remembered "fungu"? I wonder. And who came up with that poodle skirt?

As a Rydell grad, however, I must repeat that Grease also made me angry. I'm sure it's only pedantic to insist that no one ever tied a bow around a pony tail, and that even a hood--or a rock, as we used to say--like Doody (named after Howdy by his tough friends) wouldn't have twirled a yo-yo. Maybe I shouldn't even mention that the dances looked suspiciously bouncy, almost like some chorus line, and that in the middle of "It's Raining on Prom Night" the guitarist snuck in a third-hand jazz riff. Grease does pretty well with the surface, after all. It fails on a much deeper level, by positing an untenable dramatic, and social, situation.

As a form, musical comedy implies cheer and cleverness so unavoidably--just think of all those guys and dolls breaking spontaneously into song--that it just naturally compromises its own realism. Because in addition Grease is subject to the Sha Na Na Perplex--the inherent self-contradiction of acquiring rock and roll naivete--its satinic lyrics, slightly jazzy rhythms and over-enthusiastic choreography are forgivable. But, like Sha Na Na, Grease compromises its realism in an avoidable way. The chance that the 12 ex-Columbia students who comprise Sha Na Na are similar to the adolescents they portray in their oldies act is small. The chance that the performers in Grease were much like the Pink Ladies and Burger Palace Boys is even smaller.

The subject of Grease is not early rock and roll, but a specific, yet maddeningly undefined, segment of late '50s teen society. At the class reunion that opens the play, this segment is identified as everyone who didn't attend reunion, but that's an evasion. A lot of people don't attend reunion, especially in large cities, and not all of them are rocks or J.D.s. The teenagers in Grease make zipguns in shop, steal hubcaps, drink wine at pajama parties and beer in the park. They're explicitly Catholic, and implicitly working class and not too bright in school. Now, many rocks were true rebels, and some of them even turned into actors--Jim Jacobs says he was a greaser at Taft High School in Chicago. But in the process of rendering these rocks funny, Jacobs has robbed them of a good deal of their complexity and dignity.

What's confusing is that on some level the rocks really do function as heroes. In the romance that serves as a plot, nice girl Sandy Dumbrowski does [ . . . ]

Record Capsules

Echoes of a Rock Era: The Early Years (Roulette) and You Must Remember These: Volume 1 (Bell). Two basic collections for connoisseurs of long-playing grease. The Roulette is "all top 10" and is as conventional as that claim implies. It includes a couple of Chuck Berry songs that any self-respecting nostalgic already owns and a couple of entries from old Roulette artist Jimmy Rodgers that really don't belong at all, but will probably please the casual reminiscer. I prefer the Bell; in fact, I think it is the best oldies package to reach the market in years. It includes a couple of acceptable sleepers I'd never even heard and some long-lost esoterica by the Turbans and Lee Allen, not to mention the Five Satins, the Channels, and the Nutmegs. Statistics: the Roulette contains 20 songs on two discs for $5.98; the Bell 16 songs on one disc for $4.98. The Roulette gets an A MINUS the Bell an A.

N'day, Oct. 15, 1972